Fill in the white, not the green, for a passport to hell

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The Independent Online
For years, I've wanted to skip off planes with one small bag slung jauntily over my shoulder, speed past fellow-passengers and be through passport control and Customs within five minutes. Yet inexorably, I seem to be becoming more heavily laden, and now I've got passport trouble.

I'm laden because of my work and my personality. Last week was a good example. Work demanded I take with me across the Atlantic the laptop, its printer, a tape recorder and a dictating machine and accompanying junk, several books, newspapers and work-papers and some respectable clothes. It didn't, however, require me to go to Boston (temperature 20F) via Puerto Rico (91F). That was friendship.

It was personality, too, that dictated I carry seven books along with the papers, the duty-free and the small gadgets in the immense canvas holdall one of my friends calls my "toy-bag", for I live in fear that, should my plane be hijacked, I might have to sit on a runway for days without enough to read.

So my carry-on luggage consisted of the computer/printer shoulder bag (heavy and awkward), the `toy-bag' (appallingly heavy) and an overcoat (last straw). Heathrow was OK. There's always the bit when they won't let you use trolleys, but the agony is brief and bearable. In Miami, however, things are different. You have to walk for what seems like miles and there are no, repeat no, trolleys available anywhere.

Now, it isn't that my needs are singular. Lots of people carry heavy objects on board. They have children, and bags full of their paraphernalia; they have camcorders, golf clubs, double basses, and all the other garbage that can't go in checked-in luggage. This is acknowledged by airlines, which is why many nowadays permit each passenger to take two pieces of luggage on board.

I've never heard a squeak about what I heave on board. Indeed, it was an airline official who told me I would be unwise to check in electronic equipment. So I was not suffering alone in this trolley-free zone. But I was suffering more than most.

Nothing erodes my good humour like a combination of long flights, extreme physical discomfort and insensitive bureaucracy cloaked in "Have-a-nice- dayery". "How may I help you, ma'am?" asked the Customer Service woman when I planted myself in front of her and irritably divested myself of my dangling possessions. "By telling me why there were no trolleys available for passengers on the London flight."

She smiled synthetically. `Don't worry, ma'am. There will be when you get through immigration."

"What I asked," I said, holding tightly to my temper, "was why there had been none available up to now."

"There were wheelchairs," she said, brightly.

So there you have it. If you go to Miami, bring a trolley for your carry-on baggage or pretend to be crippled.

Then I hit passport trouble. I am an Irish citizen and a British subject, so I can have two passports. Last October, at Heathrow, an American Airlines official looked at my British passport and said I couldn't check in without a visa. "But I don't need a visa."

"Sorry ma'am. This doesn't state you have the right of abode in Britain."

I tried reasoning (I've lived here since I was 21, my passport is full of proof that they always let me back, European law and the rest of it). "Sorry, ma'am. We can't let you on."

What was particularly rich was that in my suitcase was a copy of a book I'd recently written about the Foreign Office, with its full co-operation. I considered showing this to the airline official and explaining that in the circumstances, even if Michael Howard wanted to deport me, Douglas Hurd might be persuaded to put in a good word, but he did not look like a man to be swayed by a joke.

Fortunately, I then remembered there was a multiple-bearer visa in my defunct Irish passport. The official said that would do nicely, I hurled myself into a taxi, asked the driver to step on it and at vast expense tore home and back. Naturally, when I got to Boston, they let me through on my British passport without a second glance.

This time around, the Miami immigration official looked at the white form tucked into my British passport and asked where my visa was. Of course, the Irish passport was buried at the bottom of the toybag, so I lost my place in the queue as I rummaged for 10 minutes on my knees. I proferred it. "This is out of date, lady."

"But the British one isn't. Anyway, the visa wasn't required last time I came here."

At this stage, he put on the expression officials adopt when confronted by people they regard as half-wits, and clutched his head in his hands. I wanted to do the same, but I wanted even more to catch my connecting flight. He spoke slowly and clearly. "Look, lady. Why'd you fill in the white form when you shudda filled in the green? The white's for a visa."

"Because the hostess didn't offer me a green one and I didn't notice this was a visa form." Shaking his head in disbelief at this moronic Limey aka Paddy, he told me to "go fill in the green". He did not offer me a pen. Mine, of course, was buried at the bottom of my toybag.

When he finally let me through, he did not instruct me to have a nice evening.

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